The American dream may end up being the end of the world.
Roughly equivalent to the first-world dream, the American one can be summarized as having a lot of things you didn’t make. In order to fulfill it, one needs a house, a car, processed food, factory-made clothes and on and on and on. Families with kids are the worst examples of this trend, because kids are constantly growing out of old possessions and acquiring new ones. But even a low-maintenance student such as myself, nary a child in sight, requires a heinous number of possessions to live a so-called normal life. All these possessions come with their own intrinsic environmental costs, and those costs are piling up.
But the scariest thing isn’t our velocity. It’s our acceleration. While Americans guzzle resources to live our cushy lives, countries such as China — with more than four times the United States’ population — are working their hardest to get to where we are now. One of the driving forces behind China’s explosive growth is its desire to be part of the elite group of developed nations. The same applies to Australia. Despite its huge geographical separation from the United Kingdom, it sticks to European cultural mores. Because its ecology is entirely different from that of Europe, these activities are incredibly destructive to the Australian environment.
The United States’ waste problems are enormous. But those of China, Australia and many smaller countries are already far worse. In its mad rush to climb to the top of the geopolitical ladder, China has ignored several elements crucial to self-supporting societies. Its infrastructure, from water transportation to recycling to industrial production, is simply not up to snuff. Leading environmentalist Jared Diamond summarizes the problems, saying, “China is poor in fresh water, with a quantity per person only one-quarter of the world average value … China’s energy efficiency in industrial production is only half that of the First World’s … More than two-thirds of China’s cities are now surrounded by trash…” and on and on. Most chilling of all is what would happen if they succeed. “China’s achievement of First World standards will approximately double the entire world’s human resource use and environmental impact.” Simply put, this is impossible. But try telling that to a country that’s been working for generations to get to the top of the pile.
So how can we stop this lemming rush off the cliff of First-World consumption? The Chinese are right — why should they have to stop their forward motion just when their goal is within reach? Until recently, if you’d suggested to an Australian that they stop living like the British, they’d have laughed in your face. If there can be a single answer to such a massive problem, it will have to focus on identity.
Americans identify as First Worlders; we feel we have a right to consume. The Chinese want to identify as such, so they consume in order to have that right. The Chinese mentality with regards to America is largely one of competition. They’re poised to overtake us in areas from space exploration to national economy. They’re tearing apart their ecology and long-term health in favor of the immediate gratification of more factories, bigger industrial sectors and more exports. So what if installing a new Foxconn plant will add another foot to the moat of garbage surrounding Shenzhen? That plant comes with tens of thousands of jobs and a corresponding increase in per capita income and a host of other statistics.
A similar problem was apparent in Australia until the 2000s, though the competition was friendly rather than hostile. Australians, separated by a vast distance from the United Kingdom, were all the more fervid in their Britishness for the distance. In an effort to keep their identities sound, they attempted to copy British customs onto Australian soil, with devastating effects to the local ecology. Since the founding of the prison colony in the 1770s, it has tried harder and harder to keep to its British roots, with the result that Australian culture is sometimes said to be more British than Britain. Here, again, is an example of national identity working against the better interests of its people. Australia is trying to combat the damage done by this attempt at Britishness, but the process is a slow one.
So how do we stop this? The easiest way for a global system to be stable is for it to be unified. The idea of a world government is an enticing one: mankind bound together under one flag, seeing its enemy for what it is: the looming specter of climate change. But because that’s more sci-fi dream than potential reality, the next-best option is to craft a global identity, influenced but not reliant upon national identity. If we can convince people to see humanity as one group instead of many, to see the planet as our only home and not as a collection of homes to be divided by the powerful, we stand to gain enormously — not only for ourselves, but for generations and generations to come.